Blue Zones: Where You Can Reach 100 in Good Health

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Modern life has benefits like mobile phones and electric cars. Downsides, too, like chronic diseases that created the first generations who won’t live as long as their parents. Discover the five places where more healthy people live to be centenarians – and why.

Main Points

  • 5 communities across the globe are home to more 100-year-olds than anywhere else;
  • Some says that’s due to their Mediterranean Diet, yet they don’t all eat the same things;
  • Others say it’s more to do with what they do with the food they eat;
  • There are lessons to learn from these Blue Zones about how to remain healthy and vital at any age.

Diet is a big part of it. If you’d like to skip directly to the way of eating to stay vital, fight disease and achieve your ideal weight, check out the MMM! Anti-diet. It’s designed for boomers who love life and love their food too much to diet.)

Shangri La

In the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, British author James Hilton describes a place called Shangri-La, a mystical valley enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains between China and Tibet. Shangri-La soon became the byword for a secluded, idyllic place where people lived longer, happier lives.

Modern civilisation has brought us astonishing inventions and medical advances, yet it’s brought misery too, including the many chronic illnesses of civilisation. It’s easy to see the lure of a mythical place where people live to 100 years or more in good health, especially for boomers like us. We’re the generation with more chronic illnesses than any other, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

‘Our centenarians are people who are used to working in the countryside, mostly as farmers or shepherds. They are simple people who have always loved to live simply, and they worked up to eighty years of age.’

Antonio Mario Attene, mayor of Silanus, Sardinia

The Secret to a Long Life

Fast-forward to the new millennium, and American journalist Dan Buettner, with the help of a couple of European demographers, was looking for places in the world that come close to the dream of Shangri-La. They struck it lucky: they found five places where people lived markedly longer, healthier and happier lives than anywhere else. These were and still are:

  • The Nuoro province in the mountains of Sardinia
  • The island of Okinawa, Japan
  • The town of Loma Linda, California
  • The Nicoya Peninsula, an isolated part of Costa Rica
  • A Greek island called Ikaria

These places boasted almost 10 times more centenarians per capita than the U.S. They also suffered the lowest rates of cancer, heart disease and stroke in the world.

Hot Air vs Mountain Air

Even though some of the five zones are near the sea, that’s not the reason for the name.

Buettner called these areas ‘Blue Zones’ for a more prosaic reason: demographers had simply drawn the boundaries in blue on their maps. He and others were quick to conclude that plant-based eating or seafood-rich Mediterranean diets provided the explanation. It looked neat, but melted away under close scrutiny.

The Nuoro Province in Sardinia is a one of these zones. Here, people lived much like their ancestors did, working the land, raising pigs, sheep and goats, growing their own fruit and veggies, and living in large families.

Western health experts said it was the vegies and seafood in the Mediterranean diet which worked the magic, but these folk don’t live near the sea; they took refuge in the mountains a long time ago to escape seafaring invaders. Common foods here were roast pig, lamb and goat, raw milk, cheese and red wine. The residents later went to some pains to set the record straight on their diet.

Big Family, Strong Community

When Antonio Mario Attenee, the mayor of a village called Silanus, was asked what he thought the Sardinian secret was, he said: ‘Our centenarians are people who are used to working in the countryside, mostly as farmers or shepherds. They are simple people who have always loved to live simply, and they worked up to eighty years of age.’

He added that their way of life was a key factor in their longevity. He spoke of ‘community life and family, which is strong, enlarged; they have siblings, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, almost three generations around them. The elderly are never alone … they’re not closed in elderly homes with other elderly people. They are happy to live and are convinced that it is worth living even if they are weak, just because there is the affection of children, grandchildren and friends.’

When the Mediterranean diet story didn’t check out, the geneticists jumped in, claiming that the gene pool here was uncompromised due to the population’s isolation for centuries. Yet, it was shown, that Sardinians who left these mountains soon lost their longevity, so the secret wasn’t in their DNA.

It was the same on the island of Okinawa in Japan, another blue zone. When Okinawans settled elsewhere, they developed the familiar health issues of modern life. Their original diet wasn’t the same as the Sardinians, either, so it wasn’t that. In the Okinawans’ diet, fish, soy sauce and beans had pride of place but, in common with the Sardinians, were close, big families and tightly-knit communities.

Sadly, the healthy Okinawan oldies will soon be lost in history because the younger generations don’t follow the traditional lifestyle that produced so many centenarians. With three quarters of US bases in Japan located on Okinawa and some 50,000 troops stationed there, you can imagine how much impact the American way of life has made,

The elderly are never alone … they’re not closed in elderly homes with other elderly people.

Antonio Mario Attene, mayor of Silanus, Sardinia

Isolation from Civilisation

The Greek island of Ikaria lies about 50 kilometres west of the Turkish coast. It features picture-book coves, rocky cliffs, steep valleys and olive groves. People here live about 10 years longer than elsewhere, and one in three Ikarians still reaches age 90 or more. The headline in the New York Times was ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die’.

What’s their secret? The Med Diet enthusiasts again pointed to their way, but in Ikaria the diet also included pork. Cardiologist Christina Chrysohoou had a different view: ‘Ikaria is still an isolated island without tourists,’ she says, ‘which means that life is largely unaffected by the westernised way of living.

That’s a recurring theme: the secret to living a long and fulfilled life is to live as far away from ‘civilisation’ as possible, in a small, cohesive community where people live simple, hard-working lives without the excesses most of us take for granted.

A couple of unexpected variables in Ikaria: most of the men had smoked, a tenth of them still did and those who quit, did so quite late in life; aged over 60. 75% of the population also drank alcohol, usually 1–2 glasses a day, so these people were hardly disciplined health nuts.

Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is another place where people were healthy and free from chronic disease, and where centenarians numbered over 600. Here too were tightly-knit communities where older members were revered and supported by large families, and people lived simple lives that avoid the excesses of civilisation.

The only unusual ingredients in the diet of the people here were vitamin D from the sun, calcium from the hard water, and a diet with tortillas, black beans, squash, papayas and yams at its centre. Their lives were sun-filled and stress-free, and the climate is tropical. It’s a very different place from Sardinia or Okinawa, and even more different to number five Blue Zone, Loma Linda.

‘Ikaria is still an isolated island without tourists which means that life is largely unaffected by the westernised way of living.

Cardiologist Christina Chrysohoou

Loma Linda in California is the only blue zone that is not protected by geographic isolation. The town lies 100km east of Los Angeles, and the Spanish name means ‘lovely hill’. If you need more convincing that small, tight-knit communities with common values are the secret to long, fulfilled lives, this town makes a strong case.

Seventh Day Adventists settled here over a century ago and still form the core of this community, with their members making up half the population of 20,000. Of course the reductionists have seized on the fact that Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians most of whom don’t smoke or drink.

When we look at just mortality, Adventists appear to die of approximately the same diseases but the age at which they die is much later,’ Dr Larry Beeson from Loma Linda University told the BBC. Beeson says their robust health is a ‘complex mix of religiosity and spirituality combined with exercise and social support.’

The article described 101-year-old Betty Streifling lifting weights at the gym in her retirement home, Linda Valley Villa, where the average age is 90. ‘Betty attends an exercise class five days a week and takes a morning stroll in the street,’ it says and adds that Betty said her secret is ‘living a pure life, no alcohol, no tobacco, going to bed early, praising God for his goodness and for the blessing of life.’

It is possible to buy a burger and fries in Loma Linda,’ the BBC article said ‘although last year the city council banned the operation of any new “formula-based fast food restaurants that offer drive-through food service”. The move was designed to the “protect public health, safety and welfare” of its residents.’ A really smart move!

When we look at just mortality, Adventists appear to die of approximately the same diseases but the age at which they die is much later,’

Dr Larry Beeson from Loma Linda University

The Secret Sauce

The original study of the Blue Zones is now 30 years old and I used the past tense to describe it. Yet, the people living in these communities who adhere to their old ways are still outliving their civilised peers outside.

The secret sauce is clearly not a specific diet, since diets vary greatly among the blue zones; from the meat eaters of Sardinia to the Ikarian nonagenarians eating seafood and meat, drinking and smoking, to the vegetarians of Costa Rica and the purists of Loma Linda.

Eating real food is one strand that runs through these blue zones; it’s the ‘real’ part that matters, not whether it’s meat or seafood or plant. In other words, home-grown and simply-cooked foods rather than the highly-processed foods in the modern Western diet. Active lifestyle is another common thread, in stark contrast to the average sedentary person these days, for whom physical activity is an afterthought. People in these five Blue Zones also live in cohesive communities, where getting older is revered and family members spend time together and support each other throughout life.

Who wouldn’t want to live to a hundred if you had a life like that? Compare that to the prospect we boomers fear most: being shunted off nursing homes as soon as our health starts to fail.

There’s Good News

I definitely don’t want to sign-off on a low. The prospects for us boomers don’t have to be grim and we don’t have to move to one of the isolated Blue Zones to improve them.

Based on research from around the world, I’ve put together a way of eating called MMM! (Muscles & Marbles Mediterranean) which adds yummy extras to the classic Med Diet as well as specific foods that fight chronic disease. I call it the ‘MMM! Anti-diet’ because it’s not a diet. It’s not about willpower or restriction; it’s about eating real foods to fullness and loving every mouthful. That’s also why MMM! helps you lose weight – and you can have a glass of wine, too.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out what’s in the MMM! Anti-Diet. It’s the boomer way to eat; it’s no diet at all.

Lose Weight

MMM! LOSE WEIGHT THE FOOD LOVER’S WAY

Discover The Muscles & Marbles Mediterranean Anti-diet

Kim Brebach

Kim Brebach

Hi, I’m Kim Brebach, boomer, information researcher, technical writer and Joiner of Dots at M&M. In my spare time, I review wines and love to cook.

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